El Greco
Biography of Expressionist Religious Painter, Portrait Artist.

Pin it

The Holy Trinity (1577)
Prado Museum, Madrid.
A perfect illustration of the
religious intensity of El Greco's
style of Mannerist painting.

For a discussion about What is Art, aesthetics, and associated issues
see: Definition and Meaning of Art.

El Greco (c.1541-1614)
Domenikos Theotocopoulos


Early Days in Italy
Recognition in Spain
El Greco's Painting
El Greco: A Review of His Life and Art
- Youth
- Venice
- Toledo
- The Disrobing of Christ (El Espolio)
- The Burial of Count Orgaz El Entierro
- El Greco's Second Period
- Portraits
- Final Years
- View of Toledo

Close-up detail taken from
The Burial Of Count Orgaz (1588)
Church of San Tome, Toledo, Spain.

For the finest painting, see:
Greatest Paintings Ever.


Considered to be one of the great Old Masters, and the creator of some outstanding Christian art, El Greco (full name Domenikos Theotocopoulos) was a Greek artist, whose dramatic expressionist style only found true appreciation in the 20th century. He is regarded as a key influence in Expressionism and was undoubtedly years ahead of his time. A major figure in Spanish painting, and an important contributor to Catholic Counter-Reformation Art, he is best known for his religious paintings - populated by elongated tortured looking figures - which somehow manage to combine Byzantine traditions with Western academic art. His intensely spiritual style of religious art was welcomed by the Catholic Church in Spain, despite its typically (cavalier) Mannerist handling of perspective and proportion. His most notable works include Holy Trinity (1577, Prado, Madrid); The Disrobing of Christ (El Espolio) (1577, Cathedral of Toledo); The Burial of Count Orgaz (1588, Church of Santo Tome); View of Toledo (1595-1600, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); Christ driving the Traders from the Temple (1600, National Gallery, London); Portrait of a Cardinal (1600, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); Felix Hortensio Paravicino (1605, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston); and The Opening of the Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse (1608, Metropolitan Museum NY).

Portrait Of A Cardinal (Guevara)
(1600) Metropolitan Museum of Art,
New York.

Many of El Greco's works can be
seen in the Prado Museum.

Portrait of Felix Hortensio Paravicino (c.1605, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Early Days in Italy

Little is known of his early life, but it is believed he moved to Venice around 1567 to pursue an art career - there is speculation that he apprenticed at Titian's studio, who by that time was already in his 80's but was still actively painting. In 1570 he moved to Rome and established his own workshop. During this time he absorbed some elements of the Mannerism movement but found that the influence of Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Raphael (1483-1520) (both of whom were dead) was still dominant. Although El Greco condemned Michelangelo as a 'good man, but he did not know how to paint', his influence can be seen in some of El Greco’s works including Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple (1600, National Gallery, London). Even so, El Greco fought the artistic beliefs of his day and was determined to forge ahead with his own innovations. He found this easier to do, when he moved to Toledo in Spain in 1577, where the ghosts of Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian were quieter.

Christ Driving the Traders
from the Temple (1600)
National Gallery, London.
El Greco painted 4 other versions
of this Biblical scene.

Diego Velazquez
Francisco Zurbaran

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest view painters, see:
Best Landcape Artists.
For the greatest still life art, see:
Best Still Life Painters.
For the greatest portraitists
see: Best Portrait Artists.
For the greatest genre-painting, see:
Best Genre Painters.
For the top allegorical painting,
see: Best History Painters.

For a list of the highest priced
oil painting sold at auction, see:
Top 10 Most Expensive Paintings and
Top 20 Most Expensive Paintings.

Recognition in Spain

His first major commission was for a set of paintings for the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo. These paintings established his reputation in the city. This was followed by 2 works for Philip of Spain, the Allegory of the Holy League and Martyrdom of St. Maurice (1580-82, Real Monasterio, Escorial). It is not clear why, but the King was not impressed with the paintings, and so ended all future royal commissions. In 1586 he painted The Burial of Count Orgaz (1586, Church of San Tome, Toledo), perhaps his best known work. Other works followed including 3 altars for the Chapel of San Jose in Toledo (1597–99), three paintings for the Colegio de Dona Maria de Aragon (1596–1600) and a painting of Saint Ildefonso the Hospital de la Caridad at Illescas (1603–05). In 1608, he received his last major commission for a work on Saint John the Baptist for the Hospital Tavera. While working on this commission, he became ill and died a month later in April 1614. He is buried at the Church of Santo Domingo el Antigua.

El Greco's Painting

As El Greco's style of painting matured he tended to place the dramatic over the descriptive. His figures were longer, paler and taller than they could ever be in real life. There was certain violence in his application of paint as he moved away from High Renaissance realism towards an early form of expressionism. A key characteristic of his work is the treatment of light, and many of his figures appear to be lit from within or reflect light from an unidentified source.

Other important works include: The Adoration of the Shepherds (1612-14, Prado Museum, Madrid), The Annunciation (1575, Prado), Christ on the Cross Adored by Donors, (1585-90, Louvre, Paris), The Repentant Peter (1600, Phillips Collection, Washington DC), Saints John the Evangelist and Francis (1600, Uffizi Gallery, Florence) and Christ Carrying the Cross (1600, Prado Museum, Madrid).


El Greco (1541-1614): A Review of His Life and Art

In 1580 there appeared at the Royal monastery of El Escorial in Spain, a Greek painter of Venetian training, named Domenikos Theotokoupolos. The name being most unhandy, they called him "the Greek", El Greco. He had a commission from the king to paint the Martyrdom of St. Mauritius. The theme was refractory. In the foreground the Roman general, Mauritius, consults his Christian officers, while a multitude of his soldiers in the middle distance await martyrdom or already lie headless before the executioner. A glory of angels, above, applauds the martyrs and prepares to receive their souls. It is a most impressive picture, but it has holes and confused passages. El Greco had probably seen the picture of St. Maurice by Jacopo Pontormo (1494-1556) in the Pitti, at Florence, for he forces the horror and pathos in much the same way.

Philip II disliked the picture, in fact a nearly contemporary writer tells us it pleased few, and relegated it to a more obscure altar than had been originally intended. El Greco went back to Toledo where for some five years he had been well established. One can hardly blame Philip II for disliking the picture, but the art-loving king failed signally in perception when he saw only eccentricity in the work and failed to see that this alien Greek was the only man who had made or could make the long-sought grand style of the Italian Renaissance serve a Spanish use.


Before coming to Toledo about 1575, El Greco had had a varied and cosmopolitan career. He was born at Candia in 1541. The capital city of Crete was then a Venetian possession, and a boy growing up there in the 1550s would have had three kinds of painting before him - Byzantine painting of the severe traditional style, Byzantine painting much influenced compositionally by the Italian manner, and Venetian painting in the Renaissance style. One may imagine some hesitation in the youth, and possibly a hope of adapting the new Renaissance technique to express more vividly and passionately the static solemnity of the ikons.


In 1570 the famous Croatian miniaturist, Giulio Clovio, recommended El Greco to Cardinal Farnese as a young and able disciple of the great cinquecento master Titian. We may reasonably suppose that El Greco, as pupil or assistant, had been with Titian for the seven or eight previous years. Whether he came to Venice to study with Titian, or whether his parents earlier joined the colony of four thousand Greeks at Venice, we do not know. We may be sure, however, that the young Cretan remained an exotic, and yielded little to the voluptuous urbanity of his civic and artistic surroundings.

We have a few portraits and perhaps a score of early pictures, mostly small, and since most of them have been attributed to such painters as Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, and Francesco Bassano, we can be sure that the young Greek kept his eyes open and educated himself by critical study of his elders and betters. It should be re-called that the Titian whom El Greco served was a bereaved and lonely man in his late 80s, worried about the misconduct of a son, and about his financial relations with Philip II. Most of his great pagan mythologies had been painted, perhaps forgotten, and he was engaged in devout and tragic mood on such harrowing subjects as the Crowning with Thorns, the Agony in the Garden, the Crucifixion, and the Entombment. And these painful themes which he had earlier attenuated, he now paints drastically with the most Christian sympathy. To interpret them he now seeks tone, eschews the old gay polychromy, employs a lighting no longer chiefly descriptive and defining, but chosen for its emotional potency.

Thus Titian's shop was calculated to enhance any tragic and mystical bent which may have been native to the young Greek who ground the paint and cleaned the brushes. But there are indications that the influence of Titian worked tardily, and only after the move to Toledo had furthered detached reflection. For the Italian Grecos have nothing of Titian's tragic profundity. They suggest rather the forthright athleticism of Tintoretto and the rather overt stage management of Jacopo Bassano (1515-92). The swollen muscles and pinched-in joints are entirely in Tintoretto's manner, and where the critics see a trace of Michelangelo it is likely that we really have chiefly a reflection of Tintoretto's constant homage to Michelangelo.

Probably only a small fraction of what Greco painted in Italy has come down to us, and that remnant merely announces a good talent, giving very slight hint of the future genius. Thus, the sound and dignified half-length portrait of a Venetian patrician, generally passed for an average Tintoretto, before cleaning diclosed the signature. Thus also, the better-known portrait of Giulio Clovio, but for the signature would probably be catalogued as a Francesco Bassano. The long oblong is a favorite shape in his portraiture as is the outlook to a landscape through a window. It is a worthy, quite literal, rather dull performance. We are far indeed from those strangely stylized portraits with their suggestion of fanaticism and exaltation which Greco was soon to be painting in Spain.

In the religious pictures of this early period appears the habit, which was to be lifelong, of repeating his compositions with constant changes. We have about a dozen pictures on two themes, Christ healing a Blind Man, and Christ driving the Money Changers from the Temple. It is as if Greco were deliberately experimenting with a tranquil and an agitated theme.

The progress from picture to picture is always in the direction of simplification and concentration. Greco begins in the spectacular and static vein of Paolo Veronese and moves towards the dramatic mood of Tintoretto. And the colour follows the same course - from a rather blond polychromy to a limited tonality and sharper contrasts of light and dark. The process is most easily traced in the Expulsion of the Money Changers, which begins with the dispersed arrangement and superfluity of accessories and figures which we find in the example in the Cook Collection. The action is almost lost in the general heaping up of agreeable details. But all that is soon swept away. The action is brought forward, unexpressive features are eliminated, the architecture becomes merely a frame. The figures are more elongated, sharp contrasts of light and dark assert the forms and suggest vehement action. Indeed the later examples of the Expulsion have so much of Greco's Spanish fire and energy, not to mention the elongated forms, that it is customary to suppose them painted in Toledo. Be this as it may, Greco, while remaining within the bounds of Venetian realism, was already seeking that more passionate utterance which, to find maximum expressiveness, must find fit symbolisms of colour and suitable distortions of form.

It is customary to place in the Italian years the strange and thrilling genre painting, Man is Love, Woman is Fire, the Devil blows it. The proverb is Spanish, but it may have been current elsewhere. There are several versions of this picture, and a study for the central figure. The picture has the strangest fascination. A woman carefully touches a bunch of tow or tinder with a candle while she puffs carefully with pursed lips; a man in profile at the right observes the act. At the left, a big ape, apparently an amiable embodiment of the devil, leans over the woman's hand and gives an aiding puff. One sees only the busts in shadow and the faces spectrally glowing from the light thrown up by the candle. It is an odd picture even to have been conceived in Italy. Only Savoldo and Correggio at this time had played with such theatrical effects of illumination, and they in more conventional mood. The workmanship of the several versions of this picture probably belongs to Greco's early Spanish period, but this issue is relatively unimportant. What is important is that Greco could create such a masterpiece of sardonic romanticism, and decline to follow up the vein. It is the single playful episode in the most serious of careers, and its playfulness is of a sinister sort.


Just how life at Toledo developed in El Greco these new capacities for emotion and this new pictorial language we may only guess. One may imagine that the mere loneliness of a proud, irritable, pleasure-loving alien would have exaggerated a natural introversion. It is not a happy painter who needed to hire musicians to play during his meals. Perhaps the move from the most compromising people in the world to the most uncompromising may have fostered the intransigent mood with which El Greco was born. In Italy the desire for grandeur and decorum set limits to expression in all the arts. Not so in Spain, where a humanistic moderation in expression would have seemed absurdly and gratuitously insincere, and where nerves were ever braced to welcome any attack the artist might make upon them. Into this absolutism of the emotions El Greco readily fell, with the result that he became more Spanish than any of his painter contemporaries in Spain.


He came to Toledo in 1575 or 1576, being about 34 years old. The strange intensification of his emotional life and pictorial manner did not come about suddenly. Indeed his earliest work at Toledo was really a respectful farewell to his Venetian training, as if he wished, before moving on to new conquests, to consolidate the position he had gained. So the great retable (framed panel) of the Ascension of Mary painted for Saint Domingo el Antiguo, and the Stripping of Christ, in the Cathedral, are not merely the most accomplished Venetian pictures from Greco's hand, but also the most Titianesque. It is as if the consummate greatness of the master had dawned upon the pupil only after the master had died, as if only then had been felt the need of paying a worthy tribute to a great memory.

The central panel of the altarpiece of Saint Domingo, an Assumption of the Virgin (1577-79, Art Institute of Chicago), is, save for a few very sharp edges of the draperies and some very heavy and edgy darks, without Spanish features. There is no distortion; the dense groups about the empty tomb and the flight of angels about the Virgin, perilously balanced on her crescent moon, are composed in Titian's fashion with an active equipoise of opposing diagonal thrusts. The colour is both brilliant and cool, with rather little of the Venetian crimsons, green and yellow dominating. It is as if Greco had had in mind the rather equable, cool colouing of Veronese, whose superb adolescent angels he surely imitated, or the rare blond pictures of Bassano, which avoid the obvious colour harmonies. Otherwise it is a typical masterpiece of what we may with entire respect call the operatic mood of the Venetian Renaissance. The poses and gestures are carefully chosen for compositional effectiveness. The fundamental contrast between the masculine ardor of the group of apostles in the lower order and the feminine ecstasy of the Virgin and her celestial attendants is strongly asserted and constitutes much of the emotional appeal of the picture. It is a very fine Greco, but also a Greco of calculated and academic sort.

The future master reveals himself more clearly in the Trinity, which once surmounted the Assumption, and in the magnificent figures of St. John the Baptist and the Evangelist. There is still much of Titian in all these pictures, not merely in their urbane linear pattern but also in their sobriety and measured emotionalism. But the coming style is presaged in clouds bulging and billowing as if storm-driven, in hard, luminous edges, in brows raised and distorted with grief. As for the beautifully modelled and disposed Dead Christ in His Father's arms, the nude forms seem to be skillfully adapted from Michelangelo.

To realize the difference between this admirable Assumption in the Venetian manner, versus one in Greco's own idiom one need only compare the Assumption at San Vicente, which Greco finished 35 years later, in 1613, only a few years before he died. This Madonna, elongated and distorted, sways to the right; from below a strong angel, hovering to the left, which supports her. Two angels at her right draw away in ecstatic observation, at her left is an incandescence which resolves itself into angelic forms. The only link with earth is a few flowers which grow up from the bottom of the frame towards the delicately drooping feet of the supporting angel. And the guarantee that this angel can furnish the needed support is given only by one strong wing that fills the right center of the canvas. Harmonizing with the elongation of the figures, the tall rectangle, as is usual in the later Grecos, is no less than two squares high. This would ordinarily be regarded as an ugly and refractory proportion. But before such a picture no one thinks about proportions. It is simply a surface tremendously alive, through slashes of colour and contrasts of light and dark, with no arresting contours anywhere. One might say that the forms are swept energetically by light, or better, that the coruscation of the pigment incidentally creates form. One may again think of the composition as a progress from left to right, from the gloom of the lower left corner to the ineffable gleam of the upper right. Before it one feels an awe, an ecstasy, a bewilderment. Everything is most powerfully suggested, almost nothing is explicitly stated. We are worlds away, in a wild and irresistible poetry, from the noble prose of the earlier Assumption.

The Disrobing of Christ (El Espolio)

In 1577 El Greco agreed to do for the Toledo Cathedral a large canvas of The Disrobing of Christ (1577-79, Toledo Cathedral, Toledo), or, as the people called it, Christ stripped of his Raiment - El Espolio. The processional forward advance with the pathetically resigned Christ, and the throng with such fine contrasting elements as brutal executioners, dignified captains in armor and the holy women - these elements would have delighted Tintoretto, and in essentials El Greco handled the group much as Tintoretto would have done, in terms of drama and energy. But the cooler colour, with certain illogically incandescent areas, is tending strongly towards the Spanish style. The picture still retains something of that unmistakable, if also fine, melodramatic character which we have noted in the several versions of the Expulsion of the Money Changers. This is practically El Greco's farewell to the Venetian style.

The Espolio was the occasion of the first of many lawsuits. The chapter wished to cut down the price and to make the artist paint out the holy women, who were thought to be improperly crowded by the rabble. A referee honoured Greco's claim for pay. Indeed, in such frequent quarrels the courts usually bore him out. It seems there may have been a tendency to put upon him as a foreigner, and that in his numerous litigations he was merely protecting his rights. In this case he agreed to paint out the holy women, but apparently the chapter was satisfied with a surrender in principle and did not press matters, for happily the four holy women, a most effective feature of the great picture, are still there.

When El Greco was called to El Escorial in 1580 he probably went with high hopes, expecting from Philip II that constant patronage which his own master, Titian, had enjoyed. But he either failed to divine or completely disregarded what was in the king's mind. Philip in summoning a disciple of Titian, who had died about four years earlier, wanted a series of Titianesque paintings. Instead he got the Martyrdom of St. Maurice, perhaps the first important picture in El Greco's individual style, disliked it, and El Greco went back somewhat disappointed and discredited to Toledo.

But the lonely stay in the gloomy mountain monastery had given El Greco the vision of his own gift. He spoke little Spanish, probably despised both the work and the personality of the facile Italian painters and that of their Spanish imitators. At Venice he had seen a vigorous style of High Renaissance painting; at the Escorial he saw its pitiful liquidation in Spanish Mannerism. Such reflection may have loosened finally his already wavering allegiance to his adored Venetians, may have quickened a latent purpose to do something quite different, and of his own. Some such intense reconsideration of his aims, amid the chill and winds of the Guadarrama, with the warning of the manneristic frescoes ever before him, must underlie the St. Maurice. It is probable also that he restudied such drastic and uncompromising Titians in the Escorial as the two versions of the Agony in the Garden and the Martyrdom of St. Laurence. Here decorative colour was in abeyance, the light played about sensationally for emotional effect. Pretty surely El Greco had seen Titian paint these pictures, perhaps had painted on them himself, but then he had not fully understood them. Now, without imitating them, he could build on them.


Even to a convinced admirer of El Greco, the St. Maurice is a disconcerting masterpiece. No wonder it baffled a mere king. Gone is the sound athleticism derived from Tintoretto - or rather, it lingers only partially in the superb adolescent angels hovering in the glory above. The numerous bare legs have no wholesome Venetian or masculine brawniness, and they serve only approximately the purpose of support. They are pallid, with little muscular suggestion. With the bodies they serve ambiguously, they have taken on an incorporeal character. Hands and fingers no longer look capable of grasping weapons; fingers flicker in distraught fashion. Eye rarely meets eye the martyrs elect are united only in a common mood of devout resignation. As for colour, the usual martial reds are absent, the balance is between cold yellows and spectral blues. We are dealing with a grisly fact - a military massacre, and the treatment is completely other-worldly. The martyrdom is viewed in some eternal aspect, as a vision or hallucination common to all Christians who meditate intently on the legend.

The Burial of Count Orgaz (El Entierro)

Yet the new manner which had offended the king found favour among El Greco's passonately fanatical Toledan neighbours, and he thrived. Probably he already owned the big house in which he was to die, and had already the mistress, Dofia Geronima, and the son, George Manuel, who was to carry on his style. Whatever his first Spanish manner had to give was given in full measure in his masterpiece, the Burial of Count Orgaz. The commission for it was issued in March, 1586, and the picture was to be ready by Christmas.

To say that a picture defies words is almost a cliche, but it is perfectly true of the Burial - El Entierro. One revels in the moss green and crimson vestments of the two saints and in the devotional or fanatical intentness of all the faces, modulated from a ceremonial composure to an ecstatic awareness of the scene of reception in heaven. And while El Greco pushes the expression of awe and amazement nearly to a breaking point, his terms of expression are men of a heroic type, if fantastically so, who cannot break, while he extending the central theme in a fashion that an ancient Greek, nourished on Aristotlean criticism, would have approved.

The legend tells that nearly three hundred years before this picture was painted Don Gonzales Ruiz, governor of Orgaz, abounded in piety and rebuilt the Church of St. Tome. When, in 1323, they planned to move his body to that church, St. Stephen and St. Augustine came down from heaven and carried the body to its new sepulchre where they placed it in the presence of all, saying: "Such reward receive those who serve God and His saints." Greco's commision contract for the painting required that St. Augustine and St. Stephen must hold the head and the feet "with many people." and that "above this should be a heaven open in all glory". So much and no more guidance did the rector of the Church of S. Tome give to the Greek genius.

Another painter would have been justified in emphasizing the fact that a corpse is being translated, or even a corpse that has been many years in its cerements. This would have made a very different picture, and perhaps a more Spanish picture. But El Greco declined to paint it, and, in eliminating all sharp and disagreeable mortuary features justified by the legend, he merely followed his master, Titian, who in such subjects evoked pathos without reference to the uglier aspects of death.

Promised for Christmas of 1586, the picture was not finished till May of 1588. There followed the usual dispute about the price. Estimates of appraisers varying between twelve hundred and sixteen hundred ducats, El Greco took the drastic step of attaching the revenues of the church, and finally got his twelve hundred ducats only on condition that he should desist from the troublesome habit of appealing to the pope on such matters. Unquestionably El Greco was of a litigious temperament, but he generally seems to be right. Eight years earlier he had received nine hundred ducats for the Espolio. Surely the Burial was worth twice as much, and in having to accept a settlement at twelve hundred ducats El Greco was not exactly over indulged.

After the Entierro, El Greco's pictures generally show those distortions which troubled his contemporaries and still trouble many of us. The figures now are often ten heads high; hands and feet are generally too small; tilted faces are often out of symmetry through the swelling of one cheek, or the setting of the line of eyes or mouth off perpendicular to the axis. Draperies seem to bind the figure arbitrarily with great folds that have little relation to the points of strain and support. The line has pretty well given away as a mean of construction to the colour area, light or dark, and much of the surface is inundated by a spectral gray. The lighting follows no system. Light falls where there is need of defining an expression or realizing a projection. Dark contours are cut out and detached by a light border which no logic explains. The general effect of these pictures is apparitional, yet they have extraordinary plastic quality. It was this insistent relief that forced the learned painter and scholar Francisco Pacheco (1564-1644) reluctantly to class El Greco with the great Italians.

El Greco's Second Period

Among the pictures of this second period, the St. Martin and the Beggar (1604-14, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC) is especially fine and characteristic. The horse and rider are audaciously set across the tall canvas. The horse is a mere wraith, so is the lanky, nude beggar receiving his half of St. Martin's cloak. His look and attitude are more or less idiotic. What makes the picture is the fastidious delicacy and accuracy of the gesture of the knightly saint as he divides his mantle with his Toledo blade. The picture suggests both surprise and calculation, a springtime outing of a noble youth and a sudden act of consecration. It skirts the ridiculous perilously, much of the construction is merely approximate, but the picture has, all the same, very high existence both on the material and on the spiritual plane.

The numerous Crucifixions and the scenes of Christ's passion show the new manner at its best. Take the Calvary (Prado, Madrid), with the light from despairing hands and angels' wings slashing the gloom about the almost incandescent body of the Christ. The aims of tragic expression are attained by technical means as sensational as those of the electric spotlight of the modern stage, but the result is noble and dignified. Incidentally, in the figures of the women desperately clasping the foot of the cross, El Greco has consulted that master of pathos and light and dark expressive thereof- Federico Barocci (1526-1612). It is the most elaborate Crucifixion by El Greco.

The Resurrection (Prado, Madrid) shows the extravagance of El Greco's invention at its height. The nude Christ rises with his swelling banner above a welter of nude Roman guard bodies. All this is fantastic. The Roman guards were armoured, not nude; and they were few in number. The distortions are extreme. But the general sense of triumph is completely realized. Christ seems risen from a stormy human sea, which he dominates. Fear and admiration alternate in such faces as the light thrusts upon our view. The constructional elements in this picture are flamelike flashes of light which, while they mark the position and action of limbs, also have a sort of independent existence. These flamelike elements are in active balance. These upward flashes seem to sustain the body of the Christ. Even the strangely bent back hands, entirely ambiguous as emotion, serve a necessary function of support. Much in the picture is reminiscent of Michelangelo's Last Judgment fresco, but the forms are in process of dissolution, and the balance is not of mass or movement but of dark and light. Everything has an extraordinary reality, but reality of dream or hallucination, not that of observation.


For the distortions which are usual in Greco's pictures after 1588, various explanations have been offered. Pacheeo complained that Greco painted very carefully and at the last retouched roughly "to make the colours distinct and discordant, and to slash them cruelly with brush strokes to affect strength. And this I call working in order to be poor."

An ingenious Spanish oculist has diagnosed Greco's astigmatism, backwards - that is, he has made lenses through which, to a normal eye, a Rubens will seem to have the distortions proper to El Greco. At first blush such experiments are persuasive, but against the theory of abnormal eyesight we must set the fact that from beginning to end of his career El Greco could and did produce some great portrait paintings in their true proportions and without distortion of any sort. He once wrote on the elongation of his figures that the distant lights seemed taller than they are. In short, there is every reason to suppose that he knew perfectly well what he was about, and simply found in the elongation, asymmetries, and arbitrary impact of light, a language in which he could express himself. In one way or another the expression was tragic, and El Greco may be thought of as applying pictorially that rhetoric of calculated hyperbole, of suspense, and purple patches which tragedy has always employed, and without reproach.

The single figures of the second period show little distortion. Such half-lengths as the Magdalene (Worcester, Mass) and Repentant St. Peter (National Gallery, Washington, DC), represent the class at its best. The St. Peter, in particular, is executed with alternations of harshness and urbanity which keep the mood of repentance, while poignant, also noble and restrained. The superb physical presence of the saint seems to make our sympathy superfluous. One is not sorry for him; he is not of our world. One may say that El Greco in such pictures has almost abolished distance, while insisting on detachment. Technically it comes to a form of staging which produces in us tremendous awareness of figures completely unaware of us. Most imposing and portentous of these half-length saints is perhaps the idealized portrait of a Cardinal impersonating St. Jerome. It is a true symbol for the tragic fanaticism of Spanish religiosity, and full of sinister beauty.

As a portraitist, El Greco is consistently good, and occasionally great. About the dozens of hidalgos with pointed beards and eyes deeply imbedded in their sockets there is a certain monotony, if one of excellence. Nor do the various female portraits of Greco, picturesque as they are as a class, deeply thrill us. They are neither impersonally sumptuous in the Venetian fashion, nor yet persuasively personal. Many of these portraits of the early Spanish years are over-generalized in the direction of formal dignity.


But there is some great portrait art by El Greco. The bust, full face, in the Metropolitan Museum of New York, which may represent the painter himself, is entirely unforgettable for its fairly plastic emphasis of the ravaged forms and also for its stately melancholy. It would have been easy to make such a face merely pitiful, but pity is the last feeling one admits as he views this half-burnt-out hero. The actual handling draws much from Titian and Tintoretto, but it is more direct, simple and drastic in construction. The eyes are those of a possessed person - wide open, but illumined from within.

If one could own just one portrait by El Greco let it be the Fray Feliz Hortensio Pallavicino - better even than the obviously more salient and decorative Cardinal Guevara, although both are consummately fine pictures. If the Fray Hortensio is better, it is because of his look of a magnificent half-tamed human animal, and because it was more difficult to make something out of the blacks and creamy whites of his robes than it was to make something out of Guevara's crimson vestments. The Fray Hortensio is at once most reserved in its effect, with a sense of passion smouldering under the general discretion. It is hard to realize that it is dated in 1609, at the moment when Greco had begun to cast discretion aside. Evidently there was something about these great prelates that sobered El Greco and made him look outward. At his moment of extreme introversion, he becomes once more an extrovert on the impact of personalities which he felt to be greater than his own.

The Cardinal Guevara is Greco's showpiece. The sheer sumptuousness of the crimson satins, laces, stamped and gilded leather, merely enhances the fine, autocratic face. He is the Grand Inquisitor, pledged to honest and relentless persecution and to merciless punishment. You feel his probity and his necessary cruelty as less appalling than one would expect. It is a sumptuous picture, with a strange iciness about it. Everything is observed with a strenuousness that precludes comment or sympathy. Velazquez at his greatest is already implicit in the Guevara, as Van Dyck at his most romantic is forecast in the Fray Hortensio.

Final Years

In the last ten years of El Greco's life, 1604-1614, the style broadens. What Pacheco calls the "cruel slashes" spread a sea of light and dark waves across the surface, and though these broad flecks of light have no obvious relation to familiar shapes, yet the eye sufficiently infers the shapes from the undulalating pattern of light and dark. Ashen, sepulchral grays, phosphorently luminous, are the dominating tones, but there are often fine contrasting areas of moss green, cold yellow, pale azure. It is a dematerialized art, but also one of tremendous reality.

The Salutation (Dumbarton Oaks Collection) is a perfect illustration. The rugged forms of Mary and Elizabeth are summarily suggested by the folds and light and dark of the drapery. The contours have no human character, and are like the edges of a cliff. Little of the broad drawing of the draperies can be referred closely to the underlying forms, yet the construction has a most imposing and convincing character, a portentous reality which looks forward some three hundred years to a similar paradoxical reality in Rodin's Balzac. The forms would hardly be interpreted as human were it not for the curved base and the little door - concessions to the ordinary observational experience of the spectator.

There is often one such feature in El Greco's most volatilized pictures. In the Agony in the Garden (National Gallery, London), one of many versions, the link with ordinary experience is simply the carefully rendered olive branches, which tell us the scene is the Garden of Olives. Otherwise there is no difference in touch and texture between the cloud, the boulder behind the kneeling Christ, or the draperies of the figures.

Of these latest Grecos nothing is finer or more characteristic than the Adoration of the Shepherds (New York). The surface is tumultuous, like a broken sea. The light shoots out radially from the nude body of the Christchild - a motive borrowed from Correggio or Baroccio, but asserted with a furious energy which they neither commanded nor approved. Everywhere flashes of light - profiles, flickering hands, gracile feet, edges of robes, frayed edges of distant clouds - just one stable point of identification - the illumined soffit of an arch in the upper center - and it gives way to a hurtling trio of nude angels whirling against the gloom like a human Catherine wheel. Everywhere distortions at will - heads without occiputs, features slewed off axis, limbs almost detached from their bodies. The whole effect is of a cosmic rapture, orgiastic a little terrible in its accent. According to your capacity for emotion and your patience, it is a thrilling masterpiece or a disagreeable puzzle.

It is plain that pictures of this sort must have been painted in creative fury, remote memory supplying the scanty observational features. In making such pictures with a brush which applies rather phosphorescences than mere pigment, Greco perhaps had in mind certain remarkable tempera drawings of Tintoretto and some of the latest paintings by his master, Titian, but the method is his own. No Venetian so much cut loose from average appearances and dealt so audaciously in colour symbolism.

View of Toledo

We may appropriately take leave of El Greco - the greatest of the late Spanish Renaissance Artists - with the view of his beloved View of Toledo (1604-14, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). It is only an epitome of a city that straggles from the towered castles at the left across the spectral bridge to the little group of buildings from which the tower of the cathedral and the mass of the Alcazar rise bleakly against a slaty sky. Whirling clouds are broken by light that struggles down and smites the contour of hills, the curve of roads, and the crisp foliation of little trees. Any moment the storm may break and efface the vision. But you will never forget the apparition of the cruel and lovely city seen at hazard. It is one of the greatest romantic landscapes in Amiel's sense that it is really just the exteriorization of an apocalyptic state of mind. To endow the most intense and tragic emotions with a kind of eternal value - such was the secret of El Greco's always troubled, always triumphant art.

It took several generations to pass before the true significance of El Greco's art was to be recognised. His skill as a painter was praised, but his anti-natural style was misunderstood and criticized as 'eccentric' and 'odd'. It was not until the 1900s that a first major re-appraisal of his status within the history of art took place and his originality was 'discovered'. His works inspired major artists including the likes of Paul Cezanne. El Greco is now rated among the most outstanding Mannerist artists of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Works by El Greco can be seen in the best art museums across the globe, notably the Prado in Madrid.

• For information about the best artists, see: Homepage.

Greatest Visual Artists
© visual-arts-cork.com. All rights reserved.